Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/3/2020 (448 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
During his daily briefings with the media, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister regularly says "nothing is off the table," when it comes to dealing with the social, public health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. And to some extent, he is telling the truth.
Manitoba has been very aggressive in its public health response and as a result, we have among the fewest confirmed infections on a per capita basis. On social and economic issues, however, Pallister's performance is a bit spotty. That's concerning because even if we have fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19, Manitoba is still suffering through the same level of economic disruption as more affected provinces and regions.
Unemployment is rampant. Small businesses in particular have been ravaged. Many Manitobans who live paycheque-to-paycheque have watched helplessly as their livelihoods have evaporated.
The federal government is at least trying to do its part, even if its first bundle of economic support measures were hilariously insufficient and off-base.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered deferred tax deadlines and payments, enhanced employment insurance for people not normally eligible, mortgage and car payment protections, and a 10 per cent wage subsidy for small businesses. An impressive list with an equally impressive roster of blind spots.
Given that many small businesses are closed, ten cents on the dollar won't help a coffee shop or a clothing store continue paying wages. Deferred taxes is just kicking a can down the road. Expansion of the EI program is the most meaningful of these programs, but it will only provide a successful applicant with just over half of their normal income. Trudeau has already acknowledged that his government needs to do more.
While Trudeau wrestles with the right combination of supports, Pallister is largely missing in action.
Manitoba has offered a 60-day deferral on provincial tax payments, but only for some small and medium-sized businesses. Residential renters were also offered eviction protection. It's not doing nothing, but it's not a whole lot of something.
To be fair to Pallister, there is a strong argument that Ottawa should bear most of the fiscal burden during this crisis. For many years, Ottawa has pared back its share of essential provincial services, increasing the burden in provincial treasuries. In political terms, this is a moment where Ottawa could and should be taking the lead on economic supports.
But the COVID-19 economic crisis isn't something one level of government can tackle on its own. The premiers need to augment federal support with programs that fit their provinces.
Increasingly, however, it seems Pallister isn't interested in adding to federal supports. In his Tuesday media briefing, Pallister was pressed about whether he would introduce income support programs similar to that used in other provinces. "Today, we've done what we think is right and what we think is right for the foreseeable future."
But right for whom? It's become increasingly obvious that the premier is too focused on maintaining his political and fiscal agenda for Manitoba, a blueprint that was devised before we shut down the national economy. Other provinces have deferred plans to introduce spring budgets, realizing that there is no reasonable way to estimate expenses and revenue while the pandemic is raging.
Pallister clearly still thinks his budget has merit, including plans to cut the Provincial Sales Tax by an additional point. If he was operating under the same sense of urgency and concern as other premiers, he would be putting that lost revenue to work to protect the good people of Manitoba from a unique economic threat.
When pressed on what he will do to help Manitobans through this crisis, Pallister likes to talk about how "nothing is off the table." Instead, he should start acknowledging that there's nothing much on the table, either.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.